Blown Out of Proportion — The Dark Knight Rises

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

A great burden has fallen to Nolan’s Batman films. In a genre dominated by successful affirmative super hero films like ‘The Avengers,’ they remain the only deconstructive superhero films to still be successful with audiences.  And this is no easy task—because it is fundamentally harder for audiences to like a film that challenges their faith rather than rewards them for it.  Other attempts at superhero deconstruction, like 2009’s ‘Watchmen,’ failed miserably.  The secret to both ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, I think, was that they sat precariously, but perfectly, on the edge of a knife between philosophy and entertainment—too much generic action and they would have become a confusing mess; too much overt philosophy and it would have become pedantic and muffled.  It’s a miracle that both previous films stayed so balanced, but in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ the series has wobbled.

Let me be clear here: This is by no means an awful film.  I don’t think it’s possible for Nolan to make such a thing.  He fills ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with many great elements: a great villain, relevant social themes, clear and concise action.  It’s all there: it just doesn’t mesh the way it should.  Like the child who puts too much sugar in a recipe because he thinks it will be sweeter, Nolan fails in this film to remember that balance and proportion means as much as the ingredients itself.

Nolan’s Batman films, as a whole, intelligently ask the question: Is Batman a good thing?  ‘Batman Begins’ consists of Bruce Wayne’s initial decision to become Batman. ‘The Dark Knight’ deals with the consequences of that decision.  Now it’s up to the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to answer whether or not Batman is still “worth it.”  This is the conflict of this film; it should drive it.  We see it with Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, with a young cop, with Commissioner Gordon, and with many other characters.  Everyone, it seems, except Bruce Wayne.

The film begins with a robbery at Wayne Manner that rather suddenly sends Bruce Wayne, a recluse who hasn’t put on the batsuit for eight years, back into Batman mode.  There’s very little sense that Bruce Wayne is at all conflicted about this decision, even as Alfred begs him not to.  Perhaps this is motivated in part by a young cop, Blake, who inexplicably knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman–because of a gut feeling–and tells Wayne to be Batman again.  Afterwards, there’s no real doubt in Wayne’s mind that he should be Batman, and so the fundamental question of the entire series is answered very early on.

Two things come to mind after watching this section of the film.  First, how is it that this cop is the only person that could figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman?  In the past Nolan found clever ways to get around this issue, but here it just seems like lazy writing.  Second, and more importantly, this film’s decision to answer the key question of the entire franchise so early feels like a mistake.  Yes, most of us were probably expecting Bruce Wayne to conclude that Batman is necessary to inspire people, to remind them that the only true defense against either anarchy (as represented by the Joker in the last film) or tyranny (as represented by Bane in this one) lies in an individual’s choice to do good.  But this should have been a grand climax to this film.  It is not so here.  The events of this first half hour of the film could compromise the entire plot, but instead we are given the shorthand version.  And it seems so strange—Nolan had all the ingredients there, he just forgot about balance and proportion.

Despite this error in the first half hour, the next two hours of the film, which consist of Batman battling the villain Bane, still play out well despite now being devoid of the series’ main question.  Nolan gives us a lot of good action and some great character moments.  Though Bruce Wayne is no longer struggling with the idea of Batman’s existence, he still learns a few important lessons.  Catwoman, as portrayed surprisingly well by Anne Hathaway, is a lot of fun.  In particular, Nolan does a brilliant job with Bane, whom he creates to be an anti-Batman, someone with all the training and resources of Batman (who also wears a mask) who uses his abilities for the complete opposite goal.  This dichotomy really works well, and on the strength of this section I was willing to forgive the film for its earlier blunder.  Though he miscalculated earlier, Nolan remembers balance very well here.

And then in the last fifteen minutes of the film, things go down hill once again.  It begins with a plot twist that derails Bane as the main villain, revealing that he was working for “someone else” all along. And this “someone else” (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for those who still haven’t seen the film) is then killed five minutes later, so that there isn’t really enough time to develop this twist.  It feels cheap and tawdry, and it is something that Nolan should have known better than to do.  A twist is fine, you just need enough time to make it mean something, and it doesn’t do so here.  I really loved Bane as a villain, and to mark him down to “Number 2” so close to the end just doesn’t work.  And the ending itself is a little confusing–still more plot twists manifest  as Nolan tries to manipulate the audience from somberness to joy in a matter of seconds.  It’s a little too much, even for Nolan, and so this part falls a little flat.  Not a lot, but a little.  And a little is all it takes sometimes.  As in the beginning, Nolan makes the mistake of mismanaging elements.  All the ingredients are there, he just didn’t have a sense of proportion and balance.

In that sense ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ultimately a disappointment.  The series, which for two films had sat precariously on the edge of the knife, finally loses balance and slips off, and so this film falls short of being truly groundbreaking. But, to take some of my own advice, let’s keep things in proportion. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is still good, it is still entertaining, and there are still ideas and themes in it that are worth examining by writers much more capable than I; and so while it is not what it should be, it is good for what it is, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the legacy of the earlier films, nor Nolan as an auteur.  This is still the definitive Batman saga, and it will be a long time before anybody tops it.

In one more bit of reflection, let’s look over this summer as a whole in regards to the superhero genre. Right before the ‘Avengers’ came out in May, I recalled thinking that this summer, with the ultimate affirmation (‘The Avengers’), what I thought would be the ultimate deconstruction (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), and a reboot of Spider-Man (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’) would be legendary and represent the height of this genre.  And financially, at least, it was, as all three films did very well, which shows that the public still has a lot of faith in super heroes.  But because of my disappointment with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (which was edited out of greatness) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (which was mismanaged), I can’t say, with full conviction, that this was the best summer for superheroes ever. Still, as Heimdall said in ‘Thor’, there is always hope; and with the continued success of superhero films, I still find myself excited for what the likes of Marvel and DC have in store for us in the years to come.

Advertisements

A Bureaucratic Cosmos — The Cabin in the Woods

Though the film has already seen a pretty wide release, I’m putting up a SPOILER WARNING right here, just in case anyone wants to preserve the surprise.

Review:  It’s a very good year to be Joss Whedon, not only because of ‘The Avengers’, his triumphant return to feature film directing, but on account of his co-writing, with first-time director Drew Goddard, the excellent and under-seen horror flick ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘.  In some superficial senses the two films are similar — they both epitomize their respective genres via the kitchen sink approach, they both feature ensemble casts with Chris Hemsworth, they both feature shadowy government agencies — but their themes are diametrically opposed.

Artistically, of course, this is a wonderful boon for Whedon, marking him as a flexible writer with a taste for genre-specific philosophies, meaning he approaches screenwriting with a critical, rather than purely exploitative, eye.  Whedon knows why filmmakers do what they do and why audiences watch them.  Better yet, he doesn’t write to deconstruct genres (at least not in the sense of dismantling to discredit) but rather to deliberately and overtly explore genre psychologies while crafting fulfilling narratives in their own right.

To see how this technique works so subtly, compare Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ to Christopher Nolan‘s ‘The Dark Knight‘; here’s two great superhero films that push their title characters to the absolute limit in search of their respective cores, hoping, at the end of each film, to remind audiences why the protagonists ought to matter to them.  Superficially, then, despite differences in tone and political philosophy, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Dark Knight’ have the same kind of rousing conclusion.  By contrasting them, however, we see where Whedon’s technique differs substantially from Nolan’s.  In ‘The Avengers’, Whedon uses the ensemble approach to turn character complexities into a straightforward putting-the-band-together narrative, and wraps a rote summer blockbuster story around classic comic book optimism, rejuvenating the genre without resorting to major surgery.  Or, simply put, Whedon puts the fun back into it.  We, the audience, need the good guys to come together and put the smackdown on evil.  It just helps when we believe in it, and Whedon makes that possible.  Nolan’s approach to ‘The Dark Knight’, on the other hand, is to explore the post-9/11 political climate — which, worldwide, is afraid of both authorities and anarchists — by exposing Batman’s inherently fascist elements and the Joker’s archetypal resemblance to real-life terrorists.  Here’s the world on the edge of a knife; the audience must choose which way to lean.  Rather than affirming the genre’s emotional truth, Nolan goes for the big artistic bucks and tears Batman down, generating catharsis by making him a tragic figure.  In other words, Nolan takes the fun out of it so he can make us think.  The trouble with Whedon’s approach is that it’s limited; it can never be quite as definitive as Nolan’s technique, as we’ll see in Whedon’s writing of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’.  However, the trouble with Nolan’s take — at least in ‘The Dark Knight’ — is that it doesn’t allow for unironic genre consumption.  Rather than rewarding viewers for their love, it punishes them, hoping to affect their outlook towards thoughtfulness, though it often generates cynicism instead.  For Whedon, though, the audience is king; they just sometimes forget what they want.

Which is why ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is such a different beast.  Rather than just catering to our tastes, like ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ wants us to have a critical, detached look at our cake and to eat it sincerely, too.  The problem, of course, is that these demands don’t really jibe without generating an unnervingly pessimistic theme.  In order for you to understand what I’m driving at, I have to describe the film’s mechanics in detail, hence the spoiler warning up top.

In the film’s world we have three levels: on the surface is, basically, the real world, with the control bunker beneath devising murderous scenarios that fulfill horror film tropes, and deeper yet is the prison of the Ancient Ones — evil gods who threaten to destroy the world if their desires (for elaborate and sexualized sacrifices) are not satisfied.  In a psychological sense, this geography seems pretty well spot-on — well, at least if you subscribe to the dominant Western view of human nature.  The Ancient Ones are primal human instincts (soul, a wellspring of evil,) kept in check only by the bureaucracy (mind) which in turn determines events in the surface world (body) in service to the underlying instincts.  If the problematic facet of this isn’t obvious to you, well, here’s the deal: we, the audience, are the Ancient Ones.  We are a wellspring of evil.  So that we don’t run wild, the filmmakers, in touch with their own violent instincts, create fantasies to satisfy our desires and keep our darker selves sublimated.  Horror films exist to save society from collapsing into chaos. This is line with the world according to Hobbes and indeed most of Western philosophy.  Unlike ‘The Avengers’, where Whedon trumpets humankind’s ability to overcome pretty differences in service of unmitigated good, this is a deeply pessimistic film.

However, it’s also brilliant, and pretty well spot-on in regards to the spiritual machinations behind horror films.  Yes, horror films do exist to fulfill a ritual function that taps into, and satisfies, a violent and sexual undercurrent of the human psyche.  That much is clear.  What ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ doesn’t offer, though, is what Nolan might have created using his toolbox — a deconstruction that provokes real doubt in the viewer as to the genre’s legitimacy.  Whedon & Goddard never really question it; they just accept the premise of humankind’s inherent evil and roll with it, seeming to point an accusatory finger at the audience while giving them a sympathetic wink.  Therefore, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ approximates Whedon & Goddard’s solution to Truffaut’s Law; that is, the aphorism that you can never make an anti-war film, because war is inherently spectacular in the literal sense, and people like to see things blow up.  Put another way, the gross features of human nature will always undercut any serious attempt to critique them by using imagery that excites those same features.  Contrary to Truffaut’s Law, however, I suggest that it is possible to create an anti-war, or, to the point, an anti-horror film.  Just avoid spectacle, which is, after all, the exploitative fuel which war, horror and erotic films run on.  With an oblique approach, it is possible, in theory, to directly comment on these genres without participating in them.  That’s assuming, of course, that a screenwriter could resist exploitation’s pull on the page, and a director could do the same.  Again, Whedon & Goddard’s solution is that there is no solution, and we might as well make the most of it.  We can never defy the Ancient Ones; if we do, they destroy the world.  Catch 22.  Keep the spiritual bureaucracy running.

In view of Whedon & Goddard’s brilliant, if negative, writing, is it possible to make a plausible alternate reading of ‘The Cabin in the Woods’?  Yes, actually, and to their credit, Whedon & Goddard deliberately give us this option, even though it runs counter to the film’s obvious thematic statement.  Like our lead characters, we can choose to defy the Ancient Ones anyway, grasping at the dignity of the choice that prevents the leads from murdering each other, even though it unleashes a greater, indeed apocalyptic evil.  In a way, the writers are penalizing us for this reading by suggesting that, if we chose to stop making horror movies, we would release real sublimated evil into society.  Whedon & Goddard are not about to play fair on this point.  They’re kind of cheating, which is of course their right as artists.  On the other hand, if, like the leads, we decided that rising above the negative aspects of ourselves was worth the cost, there is no proof that it would actually unleash the apocalypse.  Counter to the Western view to which Whedon & Goddard subscribe, if we accept an Eastern take on human nature — namely Taoism — we could conclude that the goodness inherent in all things would overcome the temporary destabilization caused by refusing to participate in horror films.  Therefore, though brilliant, ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ is understandably biased towards its own conclusions, and with a more comprehensive outlook and even hand, it need not cut to black on the end of the world.  Like ‘The Dark Knight’, it could have benefitted from a conflict and conclusion based on balance, rather than acting in typical Whedonesque fashion as an absurdly well-written genre tract — though, again, such affirmations are not in any way less artistically valuable.

All of this is not to say, however, that the horror genre is necessarily a product of human evil that must be done away with.  I’m not here to make any such definitive statements, though I can sympathize with arguments for and against its existence.  Indeed, that’s ultimately what makes ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ such a terribly good movie; it provokes critical discussion deliberately while also functioning as a pure exercise in entertainment.  It’s a subtle, intelligent work, proving Whedon’s excellence once again and hopefully paving the way for Goddard’s should-be-long-and-wonderful career.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Summary: Deliciously pulpy and rich in character, ‘Captain America‘ makes for a fine adventure, a welcome addition to Marvel’s increasingly impressive roster.

Review: As Marvel’s comic book universe unfolds on the silver screen, unique talents step up to take on the challenges presented by each story.  For an adaptation of Marvel’s most old-fashioned hero, they did well to recruit Joe Johnston, the director of period adventure ‘The Rocketeer’ (which I reviewed).  Under his reign, ‘Captain America’ translates into a shamelessly idealistic and muscular picture, improving in every way upon ‘The Rocketeer’ and boasting action that puts Marvel Studios‘ other entries to shame.

Nothing in this film would work if we could not identify with Cap himself, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, brought to life by Chris Evans refreshingly playing against type.  We thankfully don’t have to endure yet another rendition of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, as Steve Rogers’ heroism isn’t founded on mythic notions of destiny, but pure selflessness.  In a twist on the usual themes, the villain, played with great spirit by Hugo Weaving, views himself as the mythic hero, the Chosen One of the gods who alone has access to their power.  “What makes you so special?” He sneers at Rogers during a confrontation.  “Nothin’,” Steve answers, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”  So while we see the dark side of Rogers’ gifts in his villainous counterpart, what draws us to him isn’t a played out struggle to resist the heady draught of power, but his steadfast humility, that he retains his social awkwardness and innocent patriotism despite his new powers and authority.  It’s an enthusiastic affirmation of a simple, but oft-ignored, fact of life: There really are good people.  In the interest of drama, many filmmakers cloud this fact, assured that the more demons given to their characters, the better.  It isn’t — what matters is truth, regardless of content.

The action works out against a rich backdrop of pulp iconography — the European theater of World War II, secret factories constructing impossible weapons, Norwegian churches hiding ancient relics, supply trains and eight-story tanks and a humongous Flying Wing.  There are fist fights, gun fights, flamethrowers, lasers, alien energies, deformed villains, mad scientists, masked stormtroopers, motorcycles, and an invincible shield colored like a flag.  The film’s Americana is obvious, and of course the more deeply ingrained the viewer’s appreciation for that particular nation, the more likely they are to appreciate the film from that perspective.  Nevertheless, ‘Captain America’ is somehow less jingoistic than other modern action pictures such as ‘Transformers’, ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Independence Day’, all of which promote the myth of American superiority to an embarrassing extent.

The glorious thing about ‘Captain America’ is that it somehow tells a good standalone story, ties directly into Marvel’s grand plan for ‘The Avengers’, is stunningly retro and yet quite modern in its presentation.  Its weakness is that it moves so fast that it requires repeat viewings to catch all the character and background detail so easily missed on a first pass.  A more suspenseful build-up to the climax would have been beneficial, underscoring the impressive action sequences like a rest between the notes.  A longer stay with Cap and the Howling Commandos would have been most welcome.  Nevertheless, these are good problems to have, symptoms of a well crafted film.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ stands alongside ‘Iron Man’ as the best of Marvel Studios’ pictures to date.  Though DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the benefit of Christopher Nolan‘s ‘Batman’ films, Marvel has proven to me that they are unashamed of their material and are more than capable of delivering quality adaptations to the screen.  These are films which today’s kids and geeky adults like myself will hail as classics in twenty years’ time.  Thanks to Joe Johnston and company for yet another.

The Tree of Life

Summary: A highly emotional, philosophically rich story, beautifully told with all the subjectivity and hypnotic effects of a dream.  It is not for amateurs.

Review: Films run along a spectrum of complexity.  On the one end, there stands the average romantic comedy or action film, with a plot recycled with new faces, locations and set pieces; the outcome is predictable, the box office dollars practically guaranteed, and its only goal is to entertain for a couple of hours.  On the other end, there is pure creativity, meat so rare it is nigh-impossible for average moviegoers to digest; this is film as dream and art, a trip of the mind and soul, and its goal is to baptize the viewer.  Here stands ‘The Tree of Life’.

Now to clarify, a film closer to the entertainment side is not necessarily any less a valuable work of art.  A light adventure like the original ‘Star Wars’ is impossible to compare with a philosophical journey like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.  They are both perfect, though one is comparable to a circle and the other to a sphere.  This is why I abandoned quantitative rating systems, as they end up cutting apples and oranges with the same slicer, so to speak.  There are now two films that stand as my favorites of the summer, and they cover the spectrum — one is ‘Super 8’, previously reviewed, and the other is ‘The Tree of Life’.  Both are emotionally powerful, but they access different parts of my spirit.

The film’s writer and director, Terrence Malick, has a simple method of breaking a potentially rudimentary plot down into a meditation — instead of following a three-act structure, he explores every moment as a memory, fragmented and disorganized, overlapping and meandering, not even coming together in the end to form a cohesive whole.  The structure, in short, belongs to the viewer.  We have to assemble the film into a story, much as we do our own memories.  The beauty of this is that there is never a single beat of Hollywood artificiality to shield us from the action.  It is there, as frustrating as life, engaging us.   The picture is hypnotic, even when you feel its length.  Malick’s fluid narrative allows him to duck in and out of perspectives and realities, sometimes jumping into dreams and fantasies without warning, presenting everything as an immediate, pressing question.  These questions pack the film, without answers, from start to finish.  To say ‘The Tree of Life’ is challenging is to say that fish swim in the sea.  Not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone will be up for ‘The Tree of Life’.

If acting were my profession, there are several auteurs I’d love to work with — Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino, and now I can add Malick to that list.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, not to mention the remarkable child actors who anchor the picture, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, never once blandly read their lines or strike an artificial pose for a composition.  They simply live in the frame, buoyed by the organic nature of Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography.  This is a surely a dream for any performer, the chance to disappear completely into a person who, interpreted by the randomness of Malick’s narrative, is at once naked and mysterious.

Usually I try to explore the philosophical themes of films I review, but in this instance I think it’s better for the film itself to pose its questions.  That is, after all, the entire point behind it.  I can’t sufficiently answer them, either, and even if I could, I doubt that articulating it here would affect anything of your potential experience.  The movie is a paradox, a story without a moral conclusion that forces you to make one, but lacks the hopelessness of ambiguity.  This is why it is an artistic experience and not entertainment; it does not check boxes.  It forces you to change to better appreciate it, or simply discard it in disgust.  Fools will complain about the money they wasted on admission; they are free to spend it on ‘Transformers’, next time, and be all the poorer for it.

As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral response to a film like this.  To carry my meat analogy further, if a person with an immature taste in movies tries to chew ‘The Tree of Life’, they are likely to spit it out and complain.  Steak is not for babies.  You need teeth and knives to take in an experience like this, and it helps if it’s not your first meal.  It is, even for an experienced cinephile, positively dizzying.  There are many “gateway drugs” I’d recommend before taking the plunge, among them the works of Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and the Brothers Coen, though the latter four all have advanced entries in their filmographies that stand right alongside ‘The Tree of Life’.

In short, this is a film I recommend for people who unabashedly love movies as an art form, not a diversion.  It is almost guaranteed to surprise you.  It will, one way or another, move you.

NR: Beyond The Flickering Frame

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I really appreciate J.J. Abrams’ approach to meta-narrative; that is, cinema lives beyond a film’s running time, or should, anyway.  Abrams approaches filmmaking as mythmaking, which is a noble idea, but very hard to execute properly.  He possesses a very old school love for mystery, expectation, wonder and surprise, an affection that it is difficult to sustain in the Information Age.  His next foray, ‘Super 8’, is an intriguing blend of 70s era Spielberg — with support from the man himself — and his own sensibilities.  Collider recently posted a collection of subliminal clues to its story, discovered in the Super Bowl teaser, a brisk 30 second spot that I have embedded below.  Behold!

The proverbial old man by the fire has only begun to relate the myth, and I’m already hooked.  The teaser promises a powerful collision of wonder and horror, an apocalyptic tale with a child’s eye view, and that’s something we haven’t seen in cinema for far too long, it seems.  Spielberg has sailed on from his signature childlike fantasy films into more dangerous waters, and he has no clear successor.  Even Abrams, despite showing an affinity for that sort of material, gravitates to stories with more violence and less poetry.  If anything prevents ‘Super 8’ from successfully emulating Golden Age Spielberg, it will be that tendency.

What’s important about this excellent teaser for ‘Super 8’ is what it doesn’t show.  I have always maintained that, especially in fantasy films, what is most effective is what filmmakers stop just short of showing.  In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Spielberg did not show the Mothership’s interior until a Special Edition rerelease gave him the opportunity.  He immediately regretted spoiling the heavenly mystery that the original ending created, and this blissful ignorance got restored in the Director’s Cut.  Abrams would do well to show similar restraint in the final cut of ‘Super 8’.  Proper advertising, however, creates a sense of great expectancy that needs great satisfaction.  The payoff must equal the setup.  So far, the trailers have created a distinct tone for ‘Super 8′, but wisely they left much of the plot out of sight.

What separates Abrams’ mythic strategy from predictable, tell-all advertising that plagues most films is that it expresses a real confidence in the movie.  If the filmmaker believes they have something great, a story that really surprises and thrills, they will treat marketing as an artistic prelude.  Consider the gradual reveal of Nolan’s passion project ‘Inception’ through these three trailers:

Striking images.  Bone-rattling sounds.  Terrifying.  It cast a spell on me.  The next brings on action and hints of the story’s meaning, with some deliberate misrepresentation of the plot:

The last trailer reorients audiences from the previous two, which had strong psychological horror overtones, further digesting the premise into a highly emotional action movie:

Progressively, the trailers expand on the movie’s key themes, but demand resolution.  ‘Inception’, even before we sit down for the main event, is already being told.  In the film itself, the story resolves, but does not firmly end.  It leaves us with questions, so we can go on experiencing the story after we’ve left the theater.  This is similar to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’; Spielberg resolves the conflict, but leaves us with wonder.  The adventure continues in our hearts.

‘Super 8’ has a similar marketing campaign.  The first theatrical teaser gives us, like the first for ‘Inception’, strong horror elements: An absurdly violent, apparently deliberate trainwreck, releasing an unseen alien monster, juxtaposed with a rapid zoom out from grainy Super 8 footage containing subliminal images.

The next, embedded at this article’s beginning, expands on the horror hook with gorgeous American nostalgia, primal familial emotions, and apocalyptic destruction in ’70s suburbia.  Present in both, doing most of the heavy lifting, are two strains of Midwest mythos: UFO cover-up conspiracies, and amateur filmmaking.  The Super 8 camera, I’d venture to say, is symbolically Hollywood’s lost childhood.  Many great filmmakers used it to hone their skills as children.  As digital devices take its place, its symbolic power only increases, an effect certainly related to Abrams’ film.  J.J. is using it as a deliberate homage to Spielberg, whose films have defined cinema for a generation.  So, while ‘Super 8’ may seem an incongruous title for a film about aliens and paranoid conspiracy, it’s obvious that the camera and the kids behind it are the film’s heart and soul.

If ‘Super 8’ has a great story, as I am ready to believe, then it had better include that final, crucial magic trick; the hint at things to come.  Not a sequel, not a television series, not a comic book; a story that lives forever, unstained by cash grabs, beyond the flickering frame.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.

Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.